THE BRUCE LEE HOLLYWOOD POSSE | TINSELTOWN’S ELITE UNDERSTUDIES

 Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee, circa 1972.

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There are certain moments in life that you never forget.  Oddly, I still remember the evening when as a kid I got a glimpse of Bruce Lee on the tube in Game of Death. It was the immortal scene where Lee, at all of  5′ 7″, squares-off against 7′ 2″ basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his unending Plastic Man-like reach. My heart was pounding out of my chest, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the sinewy, screaming, leaping Bruce Lee– I’d never seen anything so crazy and exciting in all my short life. He seemed more full of life, energy and determination than anyone I’d ever seen– yet, I was watching a man onscreen who had already passed away. It seemed almost unbelievable that he was gone– I think that pretty much sums up the effect he had on a lot of people.  He was so skilled, entertaining and charismatic that you couldn’t take your eyes off him, because if you did– you might quickly miss out on something that’s never been seen before. You were sure there was no one person in the world that could take Bruce Lee out. He seemed to be invincible onscreen– which makes his mysterious passing all the more ironic.

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Original caption from 1966– Bruce Lee, who plays Kato in ABC-TV’s Fridays, (7:30-8 P.M., EST) springs into three of the basic positions of Kung Fu, the ancient Oriental art of self-defense of which Bruce is a master.

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There’s an interesting bit about Bruce Lee’s relationship with another Hollywood icon he hung out with– Steve McQueen. Among the many stars that Bruce Lee counted as his pupils and friends (James Coburn, James Garner, etc.) none were bigger than McQueen. Obviously both were highly competitive guys, so when Bruce Lee’s star began to rise it caused notable tension between the two that almost destroyed their friendship.

Bruce Lee was quickly becoming a hot commodity and his movie deal to make the now iconic Enter the Dragon was said to be considerably more than what Steve McQueen was pulling down for his current project, Papilon. Apparently, this got McQueen’s nose out of joint. Adding fuel the fire, Bruce apparently began to brag around town that he was going to be a bigger star than McQueen– which prompted the King of cool to fire-off an autographed picture to his little buddy Lee signed– “To Bruce, my biggest fan.”

Another bit– Bruce Lee is often credited with having taught Steve McQueen Jeet Kune Do, but McQueen was actually trained in the Korean art of Tang Soo Do by 9th degree blackbelt Pat E. Johnson. Apparently McQueen was not one to be messed with– unless you wanted to be peeled like a banana. Though he refused to test for his belt (worried he might find himself at the wrong end of a lawsuit, he didn’t want his martial arts awesomeness officially documented in case he ever had to crack open a can of whoop-ass on someone), those who were around at the time say he’d easily rank at the 3rd degree black belt level. Steve McQueen’s son, Chad, took lessons from family friends Chuck Norris & Bruce Lee– an honor I’m sure he could not have fully fathomed at the time.

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Bruce Lee on the set of “The Way of The Dragon”, 1973.

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Bruce Lee and fellow martial arts legend Chuck Norris on left — Bruce Lee  & actor James Coburn on right

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Hollywood Actors James Coburn & Steve McQueen (in head to toe denim, topped with a Lee 101J)  were pallbearers at Bruce Lee’s Seattle funeral.

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Steve McQueen straightens a plaque on the casket at Bruce Lee’s funeral, James Coburn is seen behind.

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At Bruce Lee’s funeral on Capitol Hill, Grace Lee, mother of Bruce Lee, reaches out to touch her son’s casket. At rear is an unidentified student of Lee’s, with actors Steve McQueen and James Coburn, both pallbearers at the funeral on July 31, 1973.

20 thoughts on “THE BRUCE LEE HOLLYWOOD POSSE | TINSELTOWN’S ELITE UNDERSTUDIES

  1. Oh man-love this post. Growing up half-Chinese in middle America, Mr. Lee represented both a blessing and a curse. He was (and remains, unfortunately) one of the only Asian leading men who were allowed to have some onscreen sexuality and a real sense of masculinity. Like you said, he seemed invincible. At the same time, everyone always assumed I knew kung fu “you know, like Bruce Lee”-which was a tad annoying. And I don’t know if I ever forgave David Carrradine for starring in Kung Fu rather than Bruce. I still have a well worn copy of the ‘Tao of Jeet Kun Do” on my bookshelf.

    • Jon-

      You know, I remember thinking as a kid that all Asians knew karate– so I guess that stereotype was pretty true as you say. Speaking for myself, I think every boy back then wanted to be Bruce Lee.

      I loved the show “Kung Fu” as a kid– heck, we only had 4 stations back then. But in the back of my mind I knew Carradine was a poseur and that Bruce Lee would’ve mopped the floor with him. When I found out that the show idea was originally one that Bruce Lee pitched to the network and they ripped it off– man, I was pissed for Bruce.

      Best,

      JP

    • Bruce Lee was 7/8 Chinese; his former wife is Caucasian, so his son was, and daughter is, 7/16 Chinese and 9/16 Caucasian.

      Though born in San Francisco, he was raised in Hong Kong.

      Just to clarify.

      • I think you mistook his meaning. He was indicating that HE (not Bruce Lee) grew up half-Chinese in Middle America.

  2. Very interesting post, Bruce Lee is definitely the man. The resurgence that he wrought of melding martial arts with westerns is a brilliantly complex melding of entertainment and Chinese nationalism. Its all very paradoxical, and cinematic paradoxes are fascinating :)….again, wonderfully written.

  3. Wow… This is one of my favorite posts that you have ever done. I love Bruce Lee. And 36 years after his death he still remains a well known name even among the youth of today.

    His death was a tragedy, but his life was incredible.
    Thanks for the awesome post.

    -BDB-

  4. Yes, awesome post. The first time I saw Enter the Dragon, I knew I had found something truly special. My holy Trinity of movies (Bullitt, Dirty Harry, and Enter the Dragon) all had Lalo Schiffrin doing the music. It added so, so much to these films. Schiffrin was simply a genius. Bruce Lee described himself as the Asian Steve McQueen. He couldn’t have been more right on, and I think McQueen knew it.

  5. Enter the Dragon was simply the best martial arts movie of it’s time. My brother and I got into martial arts because of Bruce and he is forever and AMERICAN and Chinese icon in my opinion.

  6. An Idol since I was a young lad. His Enter the Dragon poster hung on my wall for many years.
    Tears fell from the heavens and rolled down my face, on the day that he left us.
    I was only 13. He had such conviction and dedication to the art of Jeet Kune Do or as some might have called it…Kung Fu.
    He was my hero.
    Many very good martial artists have come, since his passing, but all walk in his shadow. There will never be another as great…as truly gifted.
    After all these years, I still smile when I see his picture, yet there is this deep sadness that washes over me, also.
    Bruce…you are remembered.
    Respect always…..

    Pablo
    Ottawa, Ontario
    Canada

  7. Pingback: STEVE McQUEEN | HOLLYWOOD’S OWN TRUE SON OF LIBERTY « The Selvedge Yard

  8. I love Bruce Lee ever since i was 7 yrs of age, i am now 38 , and to me he will always be: My childhood and lifetime hero, The best martial artist and actor, and an incredible charismatic and perfectionist human being. Bruce Lee will always live in our hearts and the hearts of generations to come, he will always be the one and only Immortal Dragon. R.I.P Bruce Lee , i will always carry you in my heart.

  9. This website is awesome. I’ve bookmarked and will easily check back frequently. I’ve always thought that my soul didn’t belong in this era due to my love of the classics you so painstakingly dig up and catalog for us to enjoy!

  10. bruce lee and steve mcqueen were just special . no doubt bruce had to fight so many stereotypes in hollywood to make it to the top . mcqueen was just flawless when it came to his own personal fashion . to the men of that era it was just effortless . godbless them both .

  11. oh my… BRUCE LEE is indeed a legend.. I watched his movies and I miss him doing kung fu… He is really amzing…everytime he does a fight scene and performs his kung fu in his movies–i am really stunned!!! Indeed a HERO.. we miss you bruce lee.. you are always here in our hearts.. R.I.P. Bruce Lee.. God is with you now….

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